More than a Mistress

By: Sandra Marton

TRAVIS BARON stood in the wings of the improvised stage at the Hotel Paradise, a hint of defiance in the rake of his jaw, waiting to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

And wasn't that a hell of a thing for a man to be doing on a beautiful Thursday night in early June? Travis thought grimly.

He ran his fingers through his hair, then smoothed his hand down the lapel of his tux. He couldn't see the crowd in the elegant ballroom but he could damn well hear it, every feminine hoot, whistle and catcall. This was the creme de la creme of L.A. society, Pete Haskell had said. Maybe so. But they sure sounded pretty down-and-dirty from where Travis stood.

The wheedling drone of the auctioneer's voice oozed from the loudspeakers like honey from a comb on a hot Texas day.

"What' m-I-bid, what' m-I-bid, ladies, c' mon, c' mon, don't be shy, don't hold back. Win the man of your dreams for the weekend."

Shy? Travis snorted. Based on what he'd been hearing for the past hour, the women gathered in the ballroom were about as shy as a herd of buffalo, and about as delicate in making their wants known. They cheered, they laughed, they hooted and hollered until the gavel came down and then they applauded and whistled until Travis figured the noise level was enough to have the riot cops bust the place. And then they started up all over again, when the next hapless victim was shoved out on stage.

Not that all the Bachelors for Bucks had to be pushed.

Lots of them went willingly, grinning and throwing kisses to the crowd.

"Hey, man," one guy had said, after a look at Travis's glum expression, "it's all for charity, right?"

Right, Travis thought, his scowl darkening. But the guy with the smile had probably volunteered for this nonsense. Travis hadn't. And to make things even worse, the luck of the draw was sending him out on that stage last.

How, he thought, how had he let himself get talked into this mess'?

"Sold!" The auctioneer's triumphant shout and the smack of his gavel were drowned out in a burst of cheers and applause.

"Another one gone," a voice mumbled, and Travis turned as a skinny blond guy stepped up beside him, his Adam's apple bobbing as he adjusted his tie. "Man, I'd rather be going for a root canal."

"You got that right," Travis said.

"Now, now, gentlemen." Peggy Jeffers, who'd cheerfully introduced herself as "your friendly slave mistress for the evening" when they'd all been introduced, tweaked the skinny guy's cheek. "You just relax, go on out there and have yourself some fun."

"Fun?" the guy said, "Fun?"

"Fun," Peggy repeated, and she put her hand in the middle of his back and gently pushed him out of the wings and onto the stage.

The roar of the audience sent the blood right to Travis's head.

Peggy smiled. "Hear that?"

"Yeah," Travis said, with what he hoped would pass for a smile. "Sounds like a pack of hyenas on a blood trail."

Peggy giggled. "You got that right." She took a step back, then eyeballed Travis from the top of his sun-streaked chestnut hair to the toes of his shiny black boots. "My oh my, handsome. They're gonna go nuts when they spot you."

She grinned, and Travis tried to return it.

"Don't tell me a hunk like you is nervous," Peggy said.

"No," Travis said, lying through his teeth. "Why would I be nervous about going out on that stage in front of a million screaming women to get myself auctioned off?"

Peggy laughed. "It's all for a good cause," she said over her shoulder as she hurried away. "And you'll get snapped up in a second."

Yeah, Travis thought, oh, yeah. That's what he'd been telling himself all night that, and the fact that he was a sane man, a normal, healthy, sane, thirty-two-year-old attorney. A bachelor, yes...but a bachelor who liked to choose his own women.

And choose them, he did. All the time. If he had any problems with women, it was getting them to understand, when the moment of truth came, that all good things came to an end. Relationships between the sexes weren't meant to last forever. A bad marriage and a worse divorce had finally taught him what the lessons of his childhood hadn't, but those two blips in the road were long behind him.

It wasn't as if he was opposed to women coming on to him. He liked a little aggressiveness in a woman, in bed and out. He found it sexy.

But a woman hitting on a guy she spotted at a party was one thing. Bidding for him, as if he were a slab of meat...

That was something else.

He'd been conned. And it had happened during a partners meeting at Sullivan, Cohen and Vittali a few months ago.

If only he'd realized that Pete Haskell was setting him up.

"Hey, Baron," Pete had said casually, as he bit into a bagel, "I was talking about you the other day with some guys from Hannan and Murphy."